New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Berenice Abbott
Inside the Archive
R. Wayne Parsons
Radio Tubes, RCA by Berenice Abbott. Source:
Berenice Abbott, “Radio Tubes, RCA, 1939”

Anyone interested in masterpieces of twentieth-century photography, especially ones with a New York focus, now has the opportunity to view a large, comprehensive, and very satisfying exhibition of the work by one of that century’s best and best-known practitioners, Berenice Abbott, now on display at Commerce Graphics.

Commerce Graphics is not a gallery in the usual sense, rather it is an archive limited to the work of just two photographers, Abbott and Arnold Newman (d. 2006). It is a labor of love for long time photo aficionado and collector Ronald Kurtz. In 1985, while he was running his high-tech metals business, Kurtz acquired Berenice Abbott’s files and photographs. Since his retirement in 1997 he has devoted himself full-time to Commerce Graphics. While the company is open to the public and appreciates visitors (he would like to see more, so you will definitely be welcomed), most sales are to museums and other such institutions. Its location on an out-of-the-way dead-end block of 74th Street east of York Avenue translates into little walk-in traffic.

Berenice Abbott went to Paris in 1918 to pursue a career as an artist. She landed a position as assistant to Man Ray and turned to photography. She soon opened her own studio, concentrating on portraiture, and photographed many artistic personalities of the day. Among her creations are the most-often reproduced portraits of James Joyce and Eugene Atget.

But it was her exposure to the work of Atget, which she characterized as “realism unadorned,” that profoundly influenced her direction as a photographer. She returned to the US, determined to do for New York City what Atget has accomplished in Paris: to document the city in its variety and constant change. She worked for years on this project, and is best known for this body of work. But her interests were not limited to the city. Another ambitious project of the 1950s was documentation of US Route 1 from Maine to Florida. Further indication of her wide-ranging interests was a series of photographs she made for a group of MIT authors of a high school physics text. She devised and created photographs illustrating basic physics principles, such as wave motion, the pendulum, and magnetism. Apparently it was no easy task to convince these physicists to hire her, as they felt she was overqualified for the job.

 by unidentified photographer.
Berenice Abbott, “Nightview, New York, 1932”

There are ninety-seven photographs on display. About half are New York photographs from the 1930s, the period of her most intense activity on this project. Included is a 30” by 40” print of her single most famous image, “Nightview, New York”. (Health problems kept her out of the darkroom starting in the late 1960s. Her vintage prints were made in an era when photographs mostly were letter size. In 1985 she yielded to market pressures for large prints and hired a master printer under her direct supervision to make this and other large prints of some of her most popular images. Happily, the effort was a success, even if purists are concerned that she was not the one throwing the enlarger switch.) We see a varied assortment of bridges, buildings, street scenes, store fronts, etc. Also exhibited is a selection of images up and down the Eastern seaboard (mainly from the 1950s), as well as examples of her physics illustrations.

Abbott had strong opinions as to what was “photographic.” Soft-focused pictorialism, which she wittily defined as “the making of pleasant pretty pictures in the spirit of minor painters,” was the wrong choice, even though it was popular in the early 20th century and defined what many considered to be “art” in photography. Her approach was sharp edged, highly detailed black-and-white images made with an 8x10 view camera. While she turned her camera on iconic New York structures such as The Flatiron Building and the George Washington Bridge, she seemed more interested in documenting the unspectacular vernacular elements that more accurately define the character of the city –- newsstands, gas stations, street vendors, and so forth.

While most of her work remained true to the built environment with buildings that go straight up, not sideways, she altered her approach when she deemed it better artistically. We see smokestacks that would have long ago toppled had they actually been erected so far off the vertical. Another striking image using the same principle is a 1939 photo of radio tubes, a work that documents her strong interest in science and technology a generation before her involvement with the MIT physics text project.

In addition to photographs, the Abbott archive includes her negatives (many never printed), letters, personal papers, ephemera, etc. A limited amount of this material is also on display and makes for interesting viewing. An example is her notes about how to set up some of the shots for her physics photographs; these illustrations are especially valuable in that they give us more than the usual amount of insight into her creative process.

If you are lucky enough to visit this show when Ron Kurtz is there be sure and engage him, as he clearly enjoys sharing his vast knowledge with others who appreciate this marvelous artist. Also, don’t overlook Commerce Graphics’s excellent and informative website.

Berenice Abbott
Inside the Archive

Commerce Graphics
506 E 74th St. 4th Fl.
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212 517 7648

Sunday, April 11 to
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Hours: Mon-Fri, 10 to 4